League members Kate Kelly and Jamie Mollart discuss his new book, Kings of a Dead World, out now with Sandstone Books.
The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is The Sleep: periods of hibernation imposed on those who remain with only a Janitor to watch over the sleepers. In the sleeping city, elderly Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease which is stealing his wife from him. Outside, lonely Janitor Peruzzi craves the family he never knew. Around them both, dissatisfaction is growing. The city is about to wake.
Kate: Kings of a Dead World gives a very powerful depiction of a world falling apart, both environmentally and sociologically. I was wondering what inspiration and resources you drew on when creating this world, for it was frighteningly vivid, and in light of current events worryingly convincing.
Jamie: All my stories brew over a period of time from things that are bubbling under in my head. I think this one originally stemmed from the concept of personal culpability. I work in advertising and it is something that I struggle with from a moral standpoint in relation to my concerns about the environment. As an industry we are in many ways directly responsible for consumerism; one of the biggest causes of damage to the world we share.
We live in a throwaway culture and the thought that we have a ticking clock in which to undo the damage we’ve caused is a key theme in the book. I really wanted to explore this idea of the individual impact on a larger whole. This is one of the reasons I started playing with the idea of enforced restrictions and having a set of characters in the novel who seemingly have no-one to be responsible to.
I was also interested in what human beings are capable of if there’s no checks and measures – something which it could be argued technological advances have enabled us to do as a society as a whole.
I did a lot of research into environmental issues, climate change, politics and revolutionaries such as the Baader Meinhof group and then pulled my visual prompts together into this Pinterest board.
All of this combined in my head and built up into the world I’ve portrayed. Rereading it during the editing process made me realise how horribly pertinent it is. The empty streets, the way we spend time, separation from our families, being faced with the impact we’ve had on the world. While I was writing the book it was ostensibly a work of dystopian fantasy, but now it seems eerily prophetic.
Kate: That’s fascinating. I did wonder if your revolutionaries were based on such groups as Baader Meinhof. Of course, when faced with crises such as those you describe, as well as those we are facing in the real world today, its is expected that those in power will come up with a solution. You describe the sea defences which have been built to defend cities like London from the rising seas, and I can see something similar having to be built in the not too distant future. But it is the solution the authorities in Kings of a Dead World come up with that is at once both fascinating and unsettling. The mere though of sleeping away most of the rest of your life makes me shudder. What was your inspiration for this?
Jamie: The idea of The Sleep came from me trying to think of the most extreme and horribly pragmatic ways of solving the Climate Crisis we face. I began exploring how you could approach a solution to it if you were to ignore empathy and a concern for the human cost. And this was the furthest I could get and make it (hopefully) believable.
The Sleep addresses the main problems that cause the continued Climate Crisis – consumerism, nationalism, the idea that the individual can’t have an impact, reliance on dwindling resources, population growth etc. So, if the only aim is to halt it, then The Sleep would work. It also came from the ability we have as a species to ignore something until it’s almost too late and then be forced to act in a way that is more urgent and knee jerk than it otherwise would have been.
The counter argument to all of this is that clearly, we can’t allow our species to be the collateral damage in solving the problem, which is where Andreas and his group come in. I wanted to present the two extremes of the argument, as this is central to the themes of the book – what happens to human beings when they’re pushed to their limits. The idea of what we’re capable of is interesting to me, and The Sleep and the NSF represent the furthest ends of the spectrum I could imagine around the core idea of providing a solution.
The Sleep also gave me an opportunity to really explore time and how we choose to spend it, again at the extremes of this. How do we react if our time is extremely limited and how do we react if we have the opposite of that and nothing to constructively fill it?
Once I settled on the idea, I found it a really exciting concept to play with as it opened up so many possibilities for me as a writer to delve into and let’s face it, people with their backs to the wall are always interesting for us as novelists.
Kate: Well these characters certainly do have their backs against the wall. And yet, despite what they are going through at the heart of everything is an incredibly powerful and poignant love story.
Jamie: That was always my intention so I’m glad it came across to you that way. There is so much horror in the story that I wanted a real human core. And with one of the main themes being use of time it was really important that the character who experiences the lack of time has a truly compelling reason to make the most of it.
The relationship between Ben and Rose, one of love and support, needed to be a direct contrast to the loneliness that Peruzzi experiences. It needed to represent everything he is lacking and the cause of his turmoil.
I also wanted to discuss love and companionship as the centre of the human experience and how even in the most terrible of circumstances it remains as a key motivation for us as a species, and possibly even more so.
Love, whether platonic or romantic (and I tried to get both in), is absolutely integral to the way we experience the world. Looking at everything through the prism of love adds poignancy to every story and enables us as writers to make a human connection with readers that wouldn’t be possible if we concentrate solely on events and not reactions to them.
I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but in the context of what is discussed in terms of human culpability, I wanted to highlight the idea that human beings are capable of both love and terrible things. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s this duality which is key to our species and what makes characters interesting and hopefully believable.
Kate: Oh I agree. It is that duality which makes your characters so interesting. Nobody is pure good or pure evil and it is Ben’s great love and loyalty to Rose that gives his character so much depth, despite all the terrible things he has done. But what I found most moving about their relationship was Rose’s illness. Dementia is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives, either through family or friends and I felt you handled a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitivity.
Jamie: It was something that I felt really needed to be handled with dignity and sensitivity. Her illness is the main reason Ben needs to value every second they have, and which makes the fact that their time is limited by The Sleep more poignant. It’s a disease that has affected me personally, as my Gran and my wife’s Gran both suffered with it, so I understand how cruel it is and the way in which it can feel as if it is stealing a person from you.
It’s a disease that is sadly becoming more prevalent and the manner in which it acts is so quick and relentless. I wanted Rose to face it with a sense of dignity, but also to be realistic about the way it manifests. I did a lot of reading around the subject and was particularly influenced by Wendy Mitchell’s incredible memoir ‘Somebody I used to know’. The way in which she describes her fight against the desire is both disturbing and inspirational.
Thematically it worked for me as well. Rose is drifting away from Ben and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. This sense of helplessness and the impact of something they have no control over mirrors The Sleep and I wanted to bring this tragedy to the front in the way I talked about their situation.
Kate: You mention human culpability and we do indeed have to accept our responsibility to our planet. After all, the current climate crisis is very much down to our own actions and the throwaway society we have become. What message do you hope your readers will take away from Kings of a Dead World?
Jamie: Culpability is absolutely at the heart of the story. For Ben and Rose it is about confronting the past as well as dealing with the present they live in, and without giving too much away, also in the way in which Ben tries to resolve things. It’s central to Peruzzi’s relationship with the city, The Sleepers, his relationship with Slattery and the way in which their actions escalate. The novel explores the effect of the individual on society and the balancing of our personal behaviour and beliefs with the needs the world as a whole.
I don’t want to get preachy here because it’s not a polemic, but it does come from my own personal preoccupations around environmental issues and consumerism. In my research I read very heavily around Climate Change and this has led to some quite extensive changes to the way we live as a family. Jonathan Safron Foer’s ‘Eating Animals‘ was instrumental in us moving to a plant-based lifestyle and we generate heat for our house using an air source heat pump rather than using gas. If you read Greta Thunberg’s ‘No-one is too small to make a difference‘ she makes the case for personal culpability far more simply and elegantly than I ever could.
Literature, especially speculative fiction, to me, should always prompt thought and discussion. And if anyone reading Kings of a Dead World spends any time thinking about the individual effect they can have on their society and environment then I will have done what I set out to achieve. Of course, I want them to have a good time along the way; I wanted to write a pacey, scary, exciting novel with some big ideas tucked away in the words. Whether I managed to do that isn’t for me to say!
Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World is out now.